The Incredible Winston Browne, by Sean Dietrich****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

The time is the 1950s; the place is Moab, Florida, a tiny town where everyone knows everyone else. Winston Browne is the sheriff; Eleanor Hughes is a frustrated single woman that fears she is headed for spinsterhood; and a small girl, Jessie, is on the lam from a creepy cult that considers her to be “a little abomination.”

I read this book free, courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas Nelson Publishers. It’s for sale now.

The story begins with Winston in his doctor’s office. There’s bad news about his chronic cough. Tests show it’s not only malignant; it’s metastatic. In other words, Winston should put his affairs in order.

Winston is a friendly guy, but he’s also an introvert. He tells no one of his condition. He’s single, and there’s no family to warn, so he goes about his life about the same as before he learned his diagnosis.

Jessie is awakened in the middle of the night by one of the Sisters, who hustles her into a waiting vehicle. She’s being busted out of the Temple compound by softhearted women that know the girl is doomed if she remains. Jessie has an independent spirit, and so when she is dropped off at the train station with instructions of where to go and who to trust, she follows her instincts instead. Her instincts take her to Moab, Florida.

Eleanor—you can call her Ellie—is fed up with Jimmy. They’ve dated for year upon year, and she is so frustrated by his inaction that she can scarcely stand the sight of him. If he is so crazy about her, then why doesn’t he propose? She’ll never have a husband or a family, and it’s all his fault. But then Winston comes along, and the birds sing in the trees.

For the first half of this book, I thought it would be a four star read. It was a good enough tale, but I had my reservations. For starters, where are the Black people in Moab? If we’re meeting the townsfolk—and we surely are—how is it that all of them are Caucasian? A visit from Jackie Robinson is all well and good, but this is Florida, for heaven’s sake. Is Moab a sundowner town?

I run a quick search, knowing that the African-American population during this mid-1900s was much lower than it is now, and I am grudgingly convinced that there might well be a little town in the boondocks with only white residents. Back then, it could have happened, so…okay.

It is during the second half that everything falls together and I am swept away by the characters. No more consulting the Google oracle; the intimacy has become too strong for me to step back.

It’s difficult for me to find a feel-good book without schmaltz. Most books that are billed as heartwarming tend to make me roll my eyes or retch a little. Dietrich works magic, though, and although it takes a minute or two to reel me in, ultimately I am captivated. The droll, understated humor that drops in and out at just the right moments is a key element. The captions that appear regularly make me guffaw more than once; don’t skip over them! They’re terrific. The text is punctuated now and then by contributions from the Moab newsletter, whose minutiae underscores just what a dull place this town usually is.  

However, let me also say a quick word here about the audio version. I began reading this book close to the publication date, and so when I was partway into it, I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. By doing so, I could extend my reading sessions, switching over to the audio when I had to do something else with my eyes and hands. The author reads his own narrative, and he has a wonderful voice, warm with just the right amount of drawl. The best way to enjoy this book is to access both the print version and the audio; if you must choose one or the other, it’s a toss-up, perhaps with a slight edge toward the audio.

Some readers will be pleased to know that there is no off color language or sex involved. If a movie were made based on this book, it would most likely show a General Audiences rating.

Highly recommended to those that love a feel good story, historical fiction, or Southern fiction.

Race of Aces, by John R. Bruning****

What kind of nerve does it take to go up alone in a fighter plane and duel with an enemy? Race of Aces is an account of the best Allied fighters in the South Pacific during World War II. My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy. When I missed the publication date, I obtained a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. This proved to be a very good thing.

John R. Bruning does a fine job introducing each of the best fighters to us, and when he begins with a young man from Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, I was instantly engaged. There are five fighters whose stories are told here: Portlander Gerald Johnson, Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neal Kearby, and Charles MacDonald. The framework for the story is a competition for a prize offered by the iconic pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, who promised a bottle of excellent bourbon to the first pilot to break his record of 26 planes shot down. The men’s heroism—and sometimes recklessness—makes for a compelling narrative for readers of military history.

I begin by listening to the audiobook as I make dinner, following up later each day by going over the digital review copy. However, I soon discover that the detailed descriptions of noteworthy dogfights are impossible to envision unless I do both at the same time. Soon my routine is to listen to the passages in between battles, knowing that whatever I am doing, I’d better drop it and grab my tablet so I can follow along once the pilots take to the air. When I do this, I am rewarded with a clear mental movie of what is unfolding. Some of these fights are breathtaking in their intensity.

A flying ace is someone that shoots down five or more enemy planes. The vast majority of World War II flyers were competent and may at some point have shot down a plane or two, but the aces were few and far between. They were often working with substandard equipment—with the best American machinery reserved for the war in Europe. One noteworthy statistic caught my attention. “Fewer than 5 percent of combat fighter pilots achieved acehood, but they accounted for 47 percent of all the enemy planes knocked out of the sky.”  

Again and again, I read instances in which the Allied fighter pilot plays a game of chicken with his opponent, flying straight at the enemy plane; usually the enemy veers off at the last minute, and once in awhile it’s the Allied fighter. There’s one noteworthy instance when they fly so close that the American pilot’s wing knocks into the Japanese plane; they find a smear of green paint on it after he lands. And so I kept wondering, what if nobody blinks? Of course, my mindset is diametrically opposite that needed for warfare; I think like a teacher. Don’t run with scissors. Slow down. Watch where you’re going, young man. Don’t wave your pencil or you’ll put somebody’s eye out. These guys, on the other hand, were warriors:

“Carl held his course and refused to break first. Blev watched in horror as he flew straight into a Zero, the two planes exploding with all the violence of a 500-mile an hour collision.”

Despite short rations at times, missing mechanical tools and parts of planes, and a number of other challenges, these men crippled the Japanese air corps in this part of the world, and because of this, the five aces were particularly loathed by the Japanese pilots. One of them is shot down toward the end, and although he survives the crash, he is shot repeatedly after he goes down. It’s just as well that he’s dead by the time they get to him:

“After he fell to the jungle floor, the Japanese stripped everything off him, including his boots, watch, clothes, jacket, and dog tags. They left his naked body unburied, sprawled facedown at the base of the tree, his parachute still entangled in its branches like a canopy for his anonymous grave.”

It’s a weird sort of compliment.

The audiobook frees me to check details not provided in the book itself. There is a description of the different aircraft available to the men, and as I listen. I search for images of them and find some diagrams; there are parts of the craft mentioned and I have no idea what they are. Hopefully those that pick up the finished copy may find some photographs or illustrations, but I have none, so I run some searches.

Ultimately, I don’t care at all who wins the bottle of bourbon, and I have trouble remembering who is who, apart from Gerald Johnson. But that doesn’t bother me; I am not in this thing for individual biographies of the pilots, or because of the Rickenbacker contest. I want to know more about the World War II pilots, and the contest between the five men provides an excellent framework for that information.

The audiobook, while useful, does have some small glitches. The narrator should have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce place names. The story begins in Oregon, and every time the word “Willamette” is used—Willamette Valley, Willamette River, and so on—the mispronunciation sets my teeth on edge. I catch myself snarling at the reader as if he is there in the room with me. His general manner while describing the military aspects of the book, which of course is most of it, has a documentary feel to it, and it works well, but now and then we veer into the private lives of the pilots, and when more sensitivity and nuance are called for, the reader is still using that clipped documentary voice you’d associate with a movie shown in your high school social studies class. Because of these things as well as the complexity of the fight scenes, I recommend the printed version over the audio. However, if you can swing it, the best way of all is to use them both simultaneously.

Nobody can dispute that Bruning knows his material, and copious research was done to produce this book, at least on the American side of it. It is a bit longer than it needs to be, and my own preference would be to edit it down a bit. Also, although the “J” word is only used in quotations, it shouldn’t be used at all. Those that squawk about authenticity should try inserting the “N” word, which was also freely used during this time period, into the quotes, just to test the assertion, and then it’s obvious that of course no reputable author should publish such a thing. Racist terms, no matter how common to the time described, have no place in any reputable history publication, and he should have worked around them.

With these caveats, I recommend this book to those that enjoy military history.

Pickard County Atlas, by Chris Harding Thornton*****

What a way to start off the new year! Chris Harding Thornton has written one of those debut novels, the sort that makes an author reluctant to publish a second book, lest it fail to live up to the first. Lucky me, I read it free; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It’s for sale tomorrow, and those that love excellent working class fiction should get a copy right away.

The setting is rural Nebraska, for a single week in 1978. It’s one of those tiny towns where not only does everyone know everyone else, but also just about every single thing that has happened in the lives of everyone else. Or at least they think they do; gossip takes on a life of its own. We have three protagonists, and their points of view alternate, always in the third person omniscient. Harley Jensen, the deputy sheriff, opens the story; then we meet Pam Reddick, a miserable, trapped, 24 year old housewife living in a singlewide trailer with her baby and a husband who’s always working; and Rick, the man Pam is married to, who works for his father, buying and renovating old mobile homes. Now there’s a job for you.

Both of the men, Harley and Rick, are leading lives of avoidance. As a child, Harley found his mother on the kitchen floor after she blew her own face away with a shotgun. The table was set, and the gravy was just beginning to form a skin on top. Gravy boat; bare, dirty feet facing the door after she fell over; cane bottom chair, shotgun, and…yeah. So now Harley is middle aged, single, childless; he maintains a careful distance emotionally from everyone. He does his job, but he’s no Joe Friday. He maintains a stoic, lowkey demeanor most of the time, putting one foot in front of the other, so that people won’t look at him with pity, which is intolerable:

People evidently needed that. They needed to know that you could overcome a thing like what happened here and keep going. That or you were just broken—more broken than they’d ever be.  That worked fine, too. The one thing they couldn’t abide was that you just lived with it. You drank and slept and did laundry with it. You waited at the DMV and clocked in and out with it.

The opening scene in which we meet Harley finds him driving his usual patrol, eager to pass the last homestead he routinely checks for prowlers, vandals, or partiers. It is his parents’ home, now derelict and unsaleable. He prefers to zip past it, but he can’t today because there’s a truck down there. Turns out to be Paul Reddick, the wily, sociopathic brother of Rick, whom we’ve yet to meet. This scene is as tense and still as the air right before the tornado hits. It’s suffused with dread, and we don’t fully understand why yet. It sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Pam Reddick is too young to be so bitter, but it isn’t stopping her. She doesn’t love her husband, and if she ever did, we don’t see evidence of it. They are married because of Anna, their now-three-year-old daughter. This fact gives me pause, since Roe v. Wade came down in 1973; abortion is legal. But then I realize, first, that the Supreme Court made a ruling, but it didn’t furnish clinics, and an out-of-the-way place like Pickard County may never have had access. Pam and Rick have so little money that a trip to the nearest clinic and the payment for the procedure was about as likely as an all expense paid trip to Europe. No, she’d have that baby all right. And she has. But she has no enthusiasm for parenting or her daughter, who looks just like her daddy. Pam goes through the barest motions of motherhood, and only that much because her mother and her mother’s friends always seem to be watching.

 Rick, on the other hand, is a guy you can’t help but feel sorry for. The entire Reddick family is a mess. Their father, who is a shyster, has more or less abandoned their mother, who has mental health problems, the severity of which depends on who is talking. The whole town knows about the night when, following the murder of her eldest son, she was seen in the backyard, stark naked, burning clothing in a barrel. His younger brother, Paul, whom we met earlier with Harley, uses street drugs and steals his mother’s prescriptions; he’s been in and out of trouble most of his life. Worse still, perhaps, is the fact—and it isn’t spelled out for us, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident—that Paul is smarter than Rick. Nobody tells us Rick is stupid; rather, his inner monologue fixates on the mundane and tends to turn in circles. And here, we can see also that poor Rick loves Pam and Anna deeply, and considers them the very best part of his young life; he counsels Paul to settle down, find someone like Pam so that he can have a good life, too. And while Rick knows that Pam is unhappy, he tells himself that she’s mad about nothing, that she’ll settle down. He’s working hard, and we can see that; the guy is a slob, but he’s industrious, on his back in the dirt ripping fiberglass out of an old trailer, stripping wallpaper, replacing pipes. And when he goes home, exhausted and reeking, his feet are sore and itching, and the thing he finds most soothing, and which makes Pam crazy, is rubbing his feet on the radiator until pieces of dead skin come off in strips, which he of course doesn’t clean up.

At this point, I’m ready to get my purse out and give Pam some get-away cash. I couldn’t live that way, either. The worst of it is that Rick is already doing his very best.

The plot unfolds like a burning tumbleweed descending a dry hillside, and it is masterfully written. Much of its brilliance lies in what is not said. There are probably half a dozen themes that bear study, for those so inclined. The violence and poverty are obvious, but more insidious is the way this county chews up the women that live there.

Another admirable aspect of the narrative is the restraint with which cultural artifacts are placed. We aren’t barraged with the headlines of 1978, or its music or movie actors. Thornton doesn’t take cheap shortcuts. Yet there are occasional subtle reminders: the television’s rabbit ears that have to be adjusted to get a decent picture; the Corelle casserole dish.

So, is this book worth your hard-earned money? If you haven’t figured that out by now, you’re no brighter than poor Rick. Go get this book now. Your own troubles will all look smaller when you’re done.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware is on a roll. The Turn of the Key is a lot of fun; I received it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books.

Our protagonist comes across the job posting almost by accident while web-crawling, looking for something else. It sounds too good to be true, a live-in nanny position with a professional salary and the use of a car. The location is a beautiful home in Scotland, and the children are 3 adorable little girls, along with a middle schooler who’s away at boarding school. But the funny thing is, they haven’t been able to keep anyone in the position.

Rowan is called for an interview, and she stays overnight in the room that will be hers. It’s gorgeous. The bed is sumptuous, and she has a private bathroom, with state-of-the-art everything. The house was originally an historic pile, but it’s been updated with all sorts of smart house features.

This, I think, is what sets this mystery apart from others, because it speaks to an anxiety many of us face today. Everywhere, we are monitored. Cameras keep us and our belongings safe, but we are always watched. We don’t always know whether we are being watched or not; sometimes cameras are tiny and concealed, and sometimes there are drones that come and go. Every time Rowan—who of course gets the job—has a bad moment, either because she has snapped at one of the kids, or because her clothing is stained or disheveled, or because she’s getting ready to take a shower, she wonders if someone is looking at her.

To me the most surprising thing is that she never pushes back. Why doesn’t she ask about the camera in her bedroom? When she is told that she is only getting about a third of her monthly salary, with the rest being held back as a “completion bonus” after one year, she doesn’t bat an eye. At the end we learn of an additional motivating factor that could account for these things, but that factor feels contrived to me and doesn’t add to the story. It actually weakens it, partly because Megan Miranda just published a mystery with similar features.

The ghostly noises that come in the night are augmented by the smart home features, and here I can only bow in admiration. I also appreciate the poison garden, which is wickedly cool.

The red herrings are obvious ones, and I figured out most of the outcome early on. The shocker at the end didn’t seem credible to me. It took me a long time to buy into the format. The beginning is in the form of a letter our protagonist writes from prison to obtain legal help. But Ware is skilled at creating a hypnotic narrative, and by the ten percent mark I forgot about that aspect and focused on the story itself. Despite a predictable outcome or two, I found the ending satisfying.

That said, I love the use of the microphone feature in gmail that gives Rowan’s charge Ellie, the kindergartener, the capacity to send messages; particular the cute little errors (the messages that read “fairy” instead of “very” and so forth) are adorable.

This is a fast read and a deeply absorbing one. It’s available now.

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?

Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker*****

Our story is set in the imaginary town of Santa Lora, California, a college town in the hills of Southern California. It’s sunny, green, and beautiful; parents feel safe bringing their children here…until one by one, they fall sick. No one can identify the illness; it’s “a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.” 

I read this book free and early in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Random House; this title will be available to the public tomorrow, January 15, 2019. 

Kara is the first, and roommate Mei, who is shy and hasn’t made friends yet with Kara or anyone else, is shuffled from her original dorm room to another. Then other students fall sick, and those in charge can’t decide what to do, so they do what administrators do best: they craft rules that change often and invent multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape. There’s a quarantine imposed. Parents aren’t allowed in; students aren’t allowed to leave. But they do it anyway. These are college kids. You can’t really tell them what to do, and even under guard, some are ingenious enough to escape.

Under guard! Now the parents are going nuts. Lawyers are called; who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile the illness spreads into the town anyway, because the college employs instructors, cleaning staff, and other adults that don’t live in dormitories. At first it’s kept quiet, since the trustees don’t want negative press getting out about their fine institution of learning, but of course eventually word gets out anyway. The kids have phones, after all. 

It doesn’t take much time for all hell to break loose. 

Walker is a gifted writer, and the story sucked me in and didn’t let me go till it was over. Conceptually it isn’t all that remarkable, but there are two standout features here that elevate it and make it a standout. The first is the prose style, lyrical and accessible, that makes it read like a truly creepy bedtime story for grownups. Some of it is created by short sentences that use repetition expertly, and the rest is probably just plain magic. 

But the main thing that makes me love this book is the dead accurate character development. Those that read my reviews know that nothing makes me crankier than a novelist that uses child characters that don’t act like children, or that don’t act the age they’re assigned. Here, the reverse is true. Every single character, from pre-teenage Sara and younger, mid-elementary age Libby; to the late teen and young adult college students; to the young professors with the newborn; to the older resident with a partner in assisted living are written in age appropriate thought and deed. I confess I was surprised to see how young this author is, because I could swear she had personally experienced each of these age groups. 

All eight characters that we follow are so well developed that I feel I’d know them on the street, and I care about what becomes of them. The impulsive, judgmental, occasionally reckless yet heroic Matthew, who steals Mei’s heart and then crushes it is the sort of kid I have taught in years gone by, and for that matter, so is Mei. And oh how my heart aches for Sara and Libby, whose father’s conspiracy-oriented paranoia is difficult to separate from his genius. I’ve known this guy too; when he speaks, you never know how to tease apart the brilliant parts from the crazy. With their mother dead, Sara and Libby have been sworn to silence about any number of things and told never to trust outsiders. Their home is in disrepair, and he tells them that if others can see inside, social workers will cart them away and they will never see him or each other again. And so when he falls asleep and they cannot wake him, they have a real dilemma. I want to dive into the book and carry those girls away—together—myself. 

And then I remember—oh yeah, they’re fictional. 

Other compelling characters are Catherine, the psychologist called in as a consultant and then not permitted to go home to her toddler when the quarantine is imposed; Ben and Annie, who try to protect their newborn; and Nathaniel, whose partner, Henry, is in assisted living. And though I ache for all of these characters, there are moments when humor is salted in, and so it remains a fun read. I thought the ending was perfect. 

There’s a lot more I can say, but I can’t say it like Walker does. This is a fast read and the ultimate in escapist fiction. I highly recommend it. 

Small Animals, by Kim Brooks***

SmallanimalsBrooks is a journalist and also a parent; she is nearly sent to prison for having permitted her son to remain in the car watching a video while she bopped in to a big box store to purchase headphones. The experience provided a catalyst for discussions and research she has done on structured parenting practices versus a looser model, for which she advocates. The resulting book is a plea for greater flexibility and more options for parents that either question the wisdom of tight societal controls on parenting, or that cannot find or afford the childcare that their children are legally required to have when the parent or parents must go to work.

I read this intense manifesto free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Flatiron Books and Net Galley for the review copy.

Brooks has an engaging writing style, and at the outset of the book I was with her entirely. I wouldn’t leave my child in the car as she did, but the legal fallout sure seems like overkill. Whatever happened to a warning first? But later in the text I find some outrageous logical fallacies and suppositions that she uses to bolster her argument in favor of free range parenting. I quickly moved from being supportive, to questioning, to feelings of hot indignation, and several times I felt it best to set the book aside while my temper cooled.

I suspect I have a lot of company out there. I’m a grandmother now; my children are raised, and though I love my grandsons, I am also happy not to be the one that is raising them. So I have the benefit of a bit of space and distance when I look at this controversy. Fresher are my feelings as a teacher, because there are plenty of hot buttons here that connect with educators, and I haven’t been retired from the classroom for long. More on those hot buttons in a minute.

My favorite part of this book is the research behind and inside of it, and she includes some material that is new to me. For example, I wasn’t aware that nearly three-quarters of Americans in their twenties are childless, or that childcare is so hard to find at any price that more mothers—including low income women—are stay-home mothers. There are a lot of great quotes. However, the conclusion Brooks draws from that research leaves me scratching my head.

The head-scratching as well as the hot buttons all have to do with the suggestion that children, including those in early elementary school, be permitted to roam by themselves to whatever family-oriented public locations their busy parents approve of. An example is the public playground. She reasons that if a mom that works fast food for a few hours after school lets out says her kid is allowed to leave school and go to the park, then the kid should be able to go to the park; likewise, if a writer such as herself wants some alone time, she should be able to drop her kid at the park and go home to her keyboard.

This assertion is bolstered by an assertion that very few children are harmed by strangers, and she proves this thoroughly for those that didn’t already know. In addition, she points out that there are already a lot of parents and other adults at the park.

This is the point at which my jaw drops open and I start closing doors and drawers a little extra hard just thinking about what she’s said. Brooks blithely overlooks the common ways that children at the playground get hurt. Let me count the ways: kids run in front of moving swings. Kids climb the slide someone else is sliding down and maybe both kids are injured. Kids chase a ball into moving traffic. Kids have an allergic reaction when previously nobody knew they were allergic to a single thing. Sometimes kids quarrel with other kids, and whereas many parents deal with this appropriately, there are inappropriate parents out there. If your child upsets Poopsie and Poopsie’s mama decides to unload on your kid, who’s going to step in? If an older child invites yours to play doctor in the bushes and wants to show your child something he’s seen mom and her boyfriend doing, who is going to stop them? Never mind the dangerously strange adults; most of us know there are few of them. But what about everyone else, and what about the accidents that a kid can have anywhere, and for which quick action can make a big difference?

Now let’s look at it from another angle. Which stay-home mom at the park wants to be responsible for your child? What if the park is emptying out and she wants to take her children and go get dinner started, but there’s this one solitary, anxious child that will be left behind? What can she do if one of the above-mentioned accidents befalls your child and he or she is unconscious? She calls an ambulance, and then what? Without parental approval, medics cannot even treat your child. An epipen? An IV line? A trip to the hospital? Some states and municipalities may allow a professional to start treatment, but even if they can, most hospitals won’t admit a kid whose insurance details are not known. And then of course there’s liability. If that parent—the one doing his or her job—gives your child a band-aid or a cookie and it turns out to be the wrong thing, what then? No good deed goes unpunished. And right about now, every reader that has ever worked in a public school is vigorously nodding their head.

Then too, many stay-home parents have made a choice to live on less money in order to create a better life for their family. The closest distance between two points is the stay-home mother and whoever has no childcare and wonders if she could take care of their kid because (fill in the blank.)

Usually a book such as this one will make a strong case for more federally funded childcare, and if that was Brooks’ s main focus, I would be posting a review of this book to every possible outlet in an effort to create a more vocal bandwagon. But instead Brooks really just seems to want other people to watch her kid free, and leave her occasional bad choices unmentioned. (She suggests that the person that called the cops when she left her kid in the car should have spoken to her in person; can you even imagine the hell that might befall anyone that openly questions a total stranger’s parenting practices?)

So if you are looking for a conversation starter for your book group, this might be a good choice, because it is loaded with controversial ideas. If you want to see where those kids come from—the ones that wander in unsupervised and seem more needy than the kids that have a relative, day care supervisor, or nanny in attendance—here is your epiphany. But if you are a prospective parent looking for advice, I suggest you run in the other direction. Run fast.

Best Literary Fiction of 2018

We’re continuing the countdown! This is a competitive category this year, and the award goes to a debut author as well:

Ohio